The little kingdom of Portugal differed from almost every other realm at the end of the fourteenth century in that it was already a single and united whole. From Algarve in the south to Minho in the north there were no conflicting dialects, no semi-independent provinces, and no feudal lords with vassals and rear-vassals of their own. All fiefs were held directly from the king, all castles were crown property, and there were no robber barons carving out autonomous manorial estates. The four great indigenous crusading orders—Saint John, Santiago, Aviz, and Christo—were still garrisoned in their fortresses, but all their attentions had been focused on the Saracens of North Africa since the defeat of the Moors a century earlier.
Into these happy circumstances came the Infante Dom Henrique on this day in 1394—the fourth son of King Joao. Future generations would call him Henry the Navigator because of his efforts to forge nautical advancement. At Cape St. Vincent, he built a marine laboratory that transformed the enterprise of discovery from happenstance into science. There, he gathered the greatest pilots, navigators, cartographers, ship builders, geographers, astronomers, mathematicians, and mariners in the worldr. He accumulated a vast library of sailing charts and portolanos.
He investigated the ancient tales of St. Brendan, of the norsemen, of the Antipodes, of Prester John, and of Marco Polo with the objectivity of an academician. He sponsored the discovery and colonization of innumerable far flung isles—including Madeira, Porto Santo, the Verdes, and the Azores. And he advanced the design of ocean going vessels by building the caravel.
As progressive as Henry may appear—a medieval anomaly of purposefulness, logic, and moderation—it is clear enough that he was very much a man of his day. The great and overriding motivation behind his enterprise was the simple desire to carry the crusading sword over to Africa in Christendom's holy war against Islam. He ultimately led three crusades—in 1415 against Mauritania, in 1436 against Tangier, and in 1458 against Fez.
North Africa had once been a jewel of Christian civilization. It produced some of the finest minds of the early church—Augustine, Tertullian, Anthony, Clement, Cyprian, Origen, and Athanasius. But during the seventh and eighth centuries it was put to the scimitar and vanquished. Almost every trace of Christianity was swept away. Henry wanted more than anything to remove that shame.
But, in the process, he launched the world's greatest adventurers, discoverers, and mariners. And thus, was born the great age of navigation and exploration.